49 Applicants Win i3 Grants

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Education Week
By: Michele McNeil
August 4, 2010

The U.S. Department of Education announced Wednesday that 49 districts, schools, and nonprofits beat out more than 1,600 other applicants in the competition for $650 million in grants from the Investing in Innovation, or i3, fund.

Four groups--the KIPP Foundation, Ohio State University, the Success for All Foundation, and Teach For America--won what are known as "scale up" awards worth up to $50 million each.

Fifteen groups won "validation" awards of up to $30 million, and 30 won "development" grants of up to $5 million.

The winners will focus their work in 250 different project locations spanning 42 states plus the District of Columbia, and 37 percent say they intend to serve rural school districts.

"We got tremendous response from across the country," James H. Shelton, the department's deputy assistant secretary for innovation and improvement, said in a telephone interview with reporters. "We were really struck by the number of high-quality applicants and winners who were not among the usual suspects."

But there's a big caveat before these groups can cash in: They must secure private-sector matching funds worth 20 percent of each grant, unless they've gotten a waiver from the department by Sept. 8, or they risk losing the grant. Waiver decisions are still pending.

Final award amounts will be announced next month once the matching requirements are met, and once the department can make sure the proposed budgets are in line with federal requirements.

The i3 competition sought to reward districts, consortia of schools, and nonprofit organizations that proposed the most-innovative proposals focused on improving teacher effectiveness, low-performing schools, standards and assessments, and data systems. The $650 million pot of money is a relatively small piece of some $100 billion in education aid funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress last year.

Unlike the higher-profile Race to the Top competition for states, there is only one round of competition for i3, and there were fewer guidelines on how proposals should be shaped.

The Education Department received 1,698 applications--the largest response yet to one of its grant programs--and used more than 300 peer reviewers to judge them on a 100-point grading scale. The department also called in experts from its research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences, to help determine whether applicants met tough evidence requirements.

Those requirements dictated that the largest awards would go not only to proposals that were innovative, but to those that also had strong evidence of past success, such as program evaluations that used random assignment of students. The smaller awards required less-stringent research to back up the proposals.

For now, the i3 competition is a one-shot deal. But the department has asked for more money in its fiscal 2011 budget proposal to continue the competition, and has included it in its blueprint for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

"It's very important to our strategy to continue to identify the best solutions. There is a tremendous amount of potential," Mr. Shelton said, adding that the department will host a summit in November in the hope of linking the philanthropic community with organizations that may not have won, but which scored highly in the i3 competition.

The Education Department had planned to release the winners Thursday, but the winning applicants' score sheets were mistakenly published the afternoon of Aug. 4 on the department's own website.

Biggest-Ticket Grants

The most-coveted grants were the $50 million scale-up awards, for which 19 applicants competed. The Baltimore-based Success for All Foundation successfully asked for $49 million to turn around 1,100 elementary schools in at least 19 school districts in several states, with a focus on providing local coaches to support those efforts.

Ohio State University's winning application, for $46 million, proposed training 3,750 additional 1st grade teachers in the Reading Recovery tutoring model, to reach nearly 500,000 students in 1,500 elementary schools across 40 states.

With its grant, the San Francisco-based Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, Foundation will train 1,000 new school leaders so it can open additional schools and more than double the number of students it serves--from 29,000 to 55,000--in five years. It asked for $50 million.

In addition, the KIPP Foundation will seek to share lessons learned on leadership with school administrators outside the KIPP network through efforts such as symposiums and websites.

"We've always had an open-door policy, and we're really going to push out what we've been learning about leadership and leadership training," said Steve Mancini, KIPP's national spokesman.

Teach For America--a program based in New York City that trains recent college graduates to teach in high-need schools around the country--also has an ambitious growth plan for its money; it requested the full $50 million. The organization plans to nearly double its teaching corps, from 7,300 members in 35 sites to 13,000 members across 52 sites, within five years.

"We've been working on a growth plan, but I think, realistically, coming up with the financial resources is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, challenges," said Kevin Huffman, the organization's executive vice president for public affairs. "I don't think we could have gotten this big this quickly."

Picking the Winners

For the Education Department, scoring the applicants was just one hurdle to awarding the money. Then, the department had to decide how to divvy up the aid among the three grant categories.

Mr. Shelton said that the number of winners in each category was arrived at using natural breaks in points. He also said that the winning applicants come from a broad section of the country, urban and rural, and represent many different parts of the curriculum. More than half will serve students with disabilities and English-language learners.

According to the department, 24 percent of the winners will focus on effective teachers and principals, 18 percent will focus on improving the use of data, 31 percent on standards and assessments, and 27 percent on turning around low-performing schools.

Although 37 percent of winners intend to serve rural school districts, the list of winners doesn't make it immediately clear just how those districts will be served. However, as one example, the Tennessee-based Niswonger Foundation plans to use its winning validation grant to partner with 15 school districts in Appalachia to increase college readiness.

While the scale-up grants drew a lot of attention because of the sheer size of the awards, most applicants--because of the strict evidence requirements--went after lower-tiered awards, creating intense competition at those levels as well.

The New York City-based New Teacher Project, one of the validation-grant winners, asked for $20.8 million to train up to 3,300 new teachers. But the twist on that plan, said Timothy Daly, the president of the project, is that the group will use the money to build a screening process that requires its teachers to prove they are effective in order to continue in the program.

Overall, he said of the i3 initiative, "it's been really good for our sector to have to compete like this."

Other winners are more narrowly focused.

The 1,050-student Sammamish High School in Washington state's Bellevue school district will use its development grant to transform itself into a comprehensive high school focused on the STEM subjects, or science, technology, engineering, and math.

"We really wanted to focus on providing that kind of education to students who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM careers and STEM majors," said Principal Tom Duenwald. Thirty-five percent of his school's students receive free or reduced-price lunches, and 10 percent are English-language learners.

"Frankly, I'm pretty surprised we won," Mr. Duenwald said. "We were one of 49 organizations out of 1,700 that applied--that's pretty competitive."

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